Show-length ads: why Johnny wants a Gobot

The kids love it: fuzzy little Ewoks and Wuzzles, action-packed He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, all coming to life on Saturday morning TV. The toymakers love it: millions of children rushing from the screen to the shop to buy the latest models of characters they've just been watching.

Even the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in its surge toward deregulation, loves it: market forces bubbling away and setting the tone of children's programming.

The subject: half-hour-long animated children's cartoon shows. Produced under the close scrutiny of the toy companies, they star the very toys the companies are promoting -- toys invented, in some cases, primarily to be sold as adjuncts to the program.

Quietly introduced two seasons ago, such shows (labeled ``program-length commercials'' by critics) now threaten to fill up children's TV. This season, according to a comprehensive report in Newsday last February, the three networks are airing 61/2 hours of such programs on Saturday mornings from 8 o'clock to noon.

So far, says Peggy Charren of the nonprofit consumer group Action for Children's Television (ACT), ``more than 40 such shows have been developed by major toy companies from their toy lines,'' including 90 half hours of ``GI Joe,'' 65 half hours of ``Transformers,'' and 65 half hours of ``Thundercats.''

Yet so insidious is this form of propaganda that even industry insiders are beginning to express qualms. It was bad enough to aim 30-second sales pitches at children too young to know that they were being sold. It is reprehensible to subject children to program-length commercials -- designed, as a different FCC warned in 1971, ``primarily to promote the sale of a sponsor's product, rather than to serve the public by either entertaining or informing it.''

And it is inexcusable to have the stations splitting profits 50-50 with the manufacturer -- a plan promoted by the makers of Thundercats, who promised stations reaching (for example) 4 percent of the nation's homes a 2 percent share of the profits of all sales of the toy line. Even Advertising Age, a trade newspaper, has blasted the current trend in an editorial headlined, ``A TV license to steal, from kids.''

One could, perhaps, have seen it coming. These days, one can't stroll very far into media issues without stumbling over two deeply perplexing ones. The first concerns children's programming. Even FCC chairman Mark Fowler, an ardent deregulator, admits that ``things are not ideal in children's programming.'' The problem lies in trying to balance the constitutional demands for uncensored speech with the equally important demand for providing a nurturing environment where children (as Advertising Age puts it) can ``grow up gracefully.''

The other issue concerns what is known as ``vested-interest speech'' -- media promotions aimed at producing commercial or political gain. Where such speech is clearly labeled, the public generally has no difficulty with it: We readily tolerate newspaper ads, television commercials, and political spots. It is when the labeling is fuzzy or absent -- when an innocent-looking message is found to have designs on our mentality -- that our hackles rise. For that reason, TV advertisers don't usually ask the producers to highlight their products within the shows they sponsor, and good newspapers print the word ``advertisement'' above promotions that might otherwise look like editorial matter.

The problem is that ambiguities abound in both First Amendment and advertising areas. In both, distinctions blur and rigid rules prove to be unworkable. In such situations, the natural inclination of the promoter is to jump in and find ways to make a handsome profit -- even at the expense of those too young to tell the ads from the programs.

All the more reason, then, to require some form of regulation -- if not by the FCC, then perhaps by the Federal Trade Commission (where ACT's Mrs. Charren would like to take the case) or even by an act of Congress. Charren's goal: Have each program-length commercial carry a continuous strip of text across the bottom of the screen, reading, ``This is a commercial message.''

That may not mean much to kids. But it will to parents. And the parents buy the toys. Surely they have the right to know that, when Johnny pleads for a Gobot, that may not be Johnny speaking, but Saturday morning television speaking through him.

A Monday column

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